The churches of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris, Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire and Selles-sur-Cher contain some of the earliest figurative sculpture in stone since Rome. Even more exceptional is the fact that these carvings, which date from the 1020s and 30s, depict contemporary polemics: images of Muslims killing Christians in the lead-up to the Crusades, the Eucharist, not as a mere symbol (as the heretical canons burned at Orléans in 1022 believed), or the illustration of the conspiracy theory that the Jews were behind the destruction of the Holy Sepulcher, an event which occurred in 1009 without Jewish involvement.
These newly conceived relief sculptures must have seemed miraculous to contemporaries who were accustomed to wall-paintings in the decoration of their churches but who had never seen carved stone. The technology was the more astonishing because of its permanence in addition to its effectiveness in making the enemy tangible because the depictions protruded into space. Thus, the revival of narrative sculpture was not merely the natural accompaniment of the new giant stone churches crafted from ashlar masonry, it was a vehicle to justify persecution and scapegoating; a tool to encourage social conformity in the wake of the millennium.
Deborah Kahn wrote her thesis at the Courtauld Institute. She subsequently returned to America where she has taught at Boston University as an Associate Professor for twenty-five years. She is the author of Canterbury Cathedral and its Romanesque Frieze, the editor of the Lincoln Frieze and its Spectator and has published widely on European sculpture as well as on medieval iconography more generally. Her most recent book, The Politics of Sanctity: Figural Sculpture at Selles-sur-Cher appeared earlier this year. She has recently turned her attention to the problem of copying and creativity in the art of the early middle ages. Covid has left her pining medieval monuments – a condition little known in the medical world but widespread among American medievalists.